Years ago, a poor urban Native American community took me in, and helped me stay alive long enough to finally recover from end stage alcoholism. I was the only white woman living in that half way house, with 20 Native American sisters.
Welcoming arms were certainly NOT extended right away, indeed, far from it. For awhile, I felt the full force of generations of anger and bitterness. I would have left, but there was no where else to go, and I was too tired to run anymore.
So I stayed and took it. It matched up well with the self hatred inside, and felt like something I deserved. I knew “real” American history: I knew why they were so angry and I did not blame them. Besides, when I was little and I was naughty, the scariest threat hurled at me by my bigoted family was, `Do that again, and we’ll give you to the Indians!” (There was a nearby reservation ) Well, I certainly had been naughty, so…here I was. 🙂
Thanksgiving came along that fall. I was so surprised to see them planning a feast for that day, that I knew was a day of mourning. My curiosity grew till it got bigger than my fears, and I asked the grizzled old housemother why? How could they want to celebrate this day like this? “Haruumph,” she says. “You know nothing.” and walked away from me.
I already had figured out that you cannot make Indian women talk if they don’t want to, and they never wanted to when I was in the room. I’d also learned that my millions of words rolled off them like rainwater. So all I could do was sit on the far sidelines and watch. And learn.
They’d gather in the kitchen over fresh fry bread and tell stories by the hour. They told of old days and old ways and ancestors. They laughed long and uproariously at the ways of the whites. They had a rich shared history, a culture still revered and honored in so many ways. They had each other. They had tribe. I did not.
They completed the planning for the Fall Feast within the two minute it took them to set the day and time. No massive menu was written out, no long grocery lists compiled , no long “to do lists”. They just set the date, then went back to storytelling! ??? How could this meal happen, with no real planning?
By now there was a few of them who decided they could tolerate me. One of them, a big tall fierce looking woman, had been assigned to be my “Big Sister.” Her main duty seemed to be to shut me up. (I had, she said, “Too many words” ) I quickly learned when she tapped her ear, it was time for me to “Just listen.”
On Fall Feast day, she did a lot of ear tapping, and I did a lot of listening. I came to see why there had been no meal planning or list writing; it just wasn’t needed; food streamed in the front door, platters of fry bread appeared on the table. No one hurried. No one got frazzled. Everyone was laughing about something. It all just, “happened”. I was surprised to be invited.
When all were seated, a lone drum sounded once, and all went silent. An old man rose and spoke in his own language. A grandmother rose to speak of harvest.
But she didn’t speak of crops. She spoke of people. Her people. She told of the ancestors, and what they left behind. She spoke of harvesting these gifts , of carefully replanting the seeds of the culture in springtime, in the young, of nurturing them in summer, and of harvesting them in the fall.
It was a short ceremony, then came food time. Over-flowing bowls and platters flew around the table, plates were heaped, emptied, and piled high again. Full stomachs were allowed their satisfied burps.
I must have eaten too, but I don’t remember that part. I only remember how it felt, being at that table. I was caught up in finally beginning to see how they could celebrate a holiday like “Thanksgiving” with this abundant Fall Feast. They had made it into a victory celebration: a time to celebrate each other, and the power of a culture that could not ever be removed from heart or spirit.
Thus, for that short while, I knew “tribe.” I knew belonging. In the coming months, I found out what family really means.
I had no job, and little money when it came my time to leave there, to find a home for myself and a young daughter about to deliver her unplanned child. Shabby apartment finally secured, we sat there wondering how we would furnish it, or buy groceries and baby things.
The caravan that pulled up in front of our place was quite a sight; an old dilapidated tri colored chevrolet, a broken down old ford , a rusty pickup with the passenger door missing, piled high with used furniture. In they came, my sisters and brothers, bearing at least one of everything we needed, and bags full of groceries I knew they could ill afford. I couldn’t handle it and had to run and hide awhile.
I tried to thank them.
My Big sister glared, and tapped her ear hard.
Today is my 24th sober Thanksgiving.
Thank you, dearest tribe.